Friday, August 6, 2010

Heroics aplenty in the rescue of 16 climbers

Lightning storm leads to massive rescue effort in Tetons


JACKSON, Wyo.—It was the sort of experience that would cause many people to swear off mountains entirely. But Steve Tyler takes a longer and larger view of life after being among 16 people removed from near the summit of 13,770-foot Grand Teton in what was described as one of the largest, most dangerous rescue operations in the history of that storied mountain.

Adventure is important, said the 67-year-old Tyler.

"You miss all the important parts of life if you don't get away from the keyboard," he said.

Just the same, Tyler intends to re-evaluate his calculation of risk when it comes to the potential for thunderstorms. An unusually intense but predicted collision of weather systems yielded the lighting, rain and snow that killed one climber and left most of the other climbers dazed.

"They just seemed overly sedated," said rescue helicopter pilot Matt Heart. "That might have something to do with the lightning bolts that went through them. Everybody that I saw that day had that exact same ... exhausted empty glare."

The Jackson Hole News & Guide devoted eight full tabloid-sized pages to telling the stories from the extraordinary drama that occurred July 21. Rescue officials said they took risks in the daring rescue appropriate to the potential gains.


The fury developed around noon, grew quickly in its intensity, hit the peak with at least six lightning strikes and lasted for more than an hour, the newspaper reported. In all, 92 emergency workers collaborated in the nine-hour marathon that involved precision helicopter flying in changing storm weather, climbing through waterfalls and the continued lightning.

One of those bolts hit Tyler and his son-in-law and two other members of a climbing party. The bolt knocked down all four. Tyler, from Provo, Utah, rolled over to his son-in-law.

"His eyes were rolled back and he wasn't breathing," Tyler told the News & Guide. Although partly paralyzed by the lightning himself, such that he couldn't close his hand, Tyler managed to blow air into his son-in-law's mouth. "It must have been six breaths when he started to breathe on his own."

Another climber, 21-year-old Matt Walker, was burned in several places by lightning. "I just remember screaming in pain," he said. "One of the images burned in my brain is looking at my friends and seeing the anguish in their faces."

The climber who was killed, a guard on his college basketball team, had been knocked 3,000 feet off a face of rock by a lighting blast. Climbing rangers in Grand Teton National Park were investigating what may have happened, as he had appeared to be securely attached to a rope and on belay when the bolt struck.

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